MEDIA ROUNDUP: Press finds space for nonprofits during tough times

Charity has gained more attention of late, but with so many competing nonprofits, getting coverage can be tough. David Ward looks at ways charitable organizations try to stand out in the local and national media.

Charity has gained more attention of late, but with so many competing nonprofits, getting coverage can be tough. David Ward looks at ways charitable organizations try to stand out in the local and national media.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, giving to charity was at an all-time high, particularly to those groups involved in disaster-relief efforts. But a more enduring result of the attacks and the concurrent downturn in the nation's economy has been a slowdown in contributions at a time when more and more people are turning to charities for everything from food to job training. According to the trade journal NonProfit Times, there are 1.4 million nonprofit organizations currently operating in the US, about 900,000 of them being what editor Paul Clolery describes as "rank and file" charities. While all these groups have the greater good as their goal, they nonetheless compete with each other - not just for donations of time, money, and other resources from the public, but also for media attention. "There's always competition, so it's the organization with the timely message that ends up getting heard on any given day," says Christine Bragale, director of media relations for Goodwill Industries International. "After September 11, we saw a lot of press for the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, who were out in front of the relief efforts. Our turn came a few months after that, when reporters began focusing on the economy and unemployment." Those were national stories, but Bragale and others say charity tends to be more of a local story. "Ultimately, it's news about the community, and so reporters are interested in what community-based organizations like Goodwill are doing, whether it's a new job-training program or a store opening. It's just at a national level where it's not as continuous as we would like." While larger charities such as Goodwill, the Red Cross, the United Way, and Salvation Army can at least count on local coverage, smaller charities may have to scramble for even that. "In a city like Washington, where so many charitable organizations are headquartered, there may be a half-dozen worthwhile and interesting charity events every day," says Renee Catacolos, who represents several food and hunger programs in and around the nation's capital. "So for reporters, it can be hard to choose which one to do." A growing beat at the dailies Even amid the general cutbacks at many news outlets, the nonprofits/charities beat has begun to grow in its own right. "More and more dailies are handing a semiregular philanthropy beat to a reporter," says Clolery, whose coverage includes tracking how the general-interest media is covering charities. "One of the things we're seeing, though, is a lack of education about what nonprofits actually do and how they operate." Clolery says one example is journalists who rely on "watchdog" groups to evaluate the performance of charities without looking to see if the groups themselves have an agenda. "A lot of reporters who cover nonprofits day to day don't understand the nuances, and just take people's word for it." Given the still small number of outlets with dedicated philanthropy reporters, it's a good idea to pitch other types of journalists such as business writers, family columnists, the society pages, and especially the metro desk. Harry Bosk, president of Baltimore-based Bosk PR, says that while it's not easy, many reporters are willing to write up a charity, provided the story's focus is on the people who are benefiting. "Most reporters like to be able to do a narrative where they tell a story through one human face or another," says Bosk, who represents groups such as The Abilities Network, which provides support for families with learning-disabled children. "Having clients who can give that emotional heartstring element has been absolutely essential." The problem may lie in getting their attention in the first place. Many say that traditional tools such as press releases are not that effective in getting a charity's message out. Emile Mahanti, senior account executive with Michigan-based Marx Layne & Co., says he prefers a more personalized query letter with key facts aimed at the editors rather than reporters. "We tend to go with a top-down approach, so we look to get one-on-one meetings with editors, and get them to assign the story to the reporter," he says. "You have to be fairly mercenary about getting coverage," adds Catacolos. "It helps to know that during the week of Thanksgiving, reporters are going to be looking for stories on food drives and soup kitchens, so you have to get on the phone and pitch. It is very hard to get their interest, but as is the case everywhere, if it involves kids or animals, you stand a better chance." Using the editorial pages Sharon Dotson with Houston-based Bayou City Public Relations says another avenue, into local papers at least, is through editorials. Dotson, who represents the Healthy Family Initiatives, was able to get an editorial on child abuse in the Houston Chronicle by playing off the story of Madelyne Toogood, the mother who was caught on security cameras hitting her children in the back seat of the family car. The obvious advantage of an editorial is that it's written by - or on the behalf of - the charity. But Dotson cautions, "Op-ed editors aren't going to let you pull out the salesmanship, so you can't include things like phone numbers and a web address. But if you effectively make your point, it can serve as a subtle sales pitch." Chuck Beeler, SVP with the PR division of Syracuse, NY-based MRA, also recommends partnering up with a for-profit company whenever possible. "If your program is new, you can probably go it alone. But once you're in your second, third, or fourth year, it becomes tougher to get media coverage without a for-profit partner," he says. Most for-profits do see the advantage of partnering with the right charities, especially if linked to a gala or other public event. "We simply tell our clients that they'll get more ink," says Beth Wilbins, account supervisor with Dallas-based Michael Burns & Associates. "Every newspaper and magazine in Dallas, including the Dallas Business Journal, has a section devoted to charity event pictures." In most cases, these partners are traditional businesses, but Beeler points out, "Sometimes a strategy that gets overlooked is to partner with a media entity. The good thing about engaging a media outlet as a partner is you're in essence guaranteeing some secured media coverage. The downside is it precludes you from getting coverage in competing media." The bulk of the opportunities for pitching charity-themed stories tend to be in print, but many say that radio, especially local talk shows, are also good outlets for charities to get the word out. Television coverage can also be garnered on occasion, but Mahanti points out, "Ninety percent of nonprofits are not visual enough for television." In the past, television did fulfill a role by airing public service announcements on behalf of one charitable group or another. But, Bragale says, "It's gotten harder to get the free airtime. A lot of stations are looking at doing overall messages such as, 'Read to your child,' as opposed to something specifically tied to an organization like Goodwill." Finally, there can be opportunities in smaller, non-traditional outlets such as community and ethnic newspapers. "You can get coverage in the calendar or briefs sections, especially if there's a church involved," says Catacolos. But, she also warns, "Sometimes ethnic publications are not that eager to cover the fact that the community is really hungry or really poor." ----- Where to go Newspapers The Washington Post; The New York Times; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; The Baltimore Sun; The Dallas Morning News; San Francisco Chronicle; Christian Science Monitor; The Boston Globe Magazines Time; Newsweek; NonProfit Times; Philanthropy; Chronicle of Philanthropy; NonProfit Leader; Common Wheel; World Magazine TV & Radio Local morning and evening television news programs; Christian and other religious broadcasting; NPR Web ephilanthropy.com; nonprofittimes.com; Philanthropy.com

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